A race to the bottom, in a cart full of people

My favorite series of Seth Godin riffs is about the "race to the bottom". There are several good variations. pick your own favorite. For me, the best ones contain a variation of: "The problem with the race to the bottom is that you might win. Even worse, you might come in second."

I was thinking about that in term of the relentless pursuit of metrics. Sorry: capital-M Metrics. People metrics. Job metrics. Financial metrics. Development metrics. Testing metrics. Et cetera.

With apologies to George Box: all metrics are wrong, but some are useful.

The best kind of metrics—or analytics or data visualization or whatever your kink is—support your people. Metrics can help get the job done. If you're running a marathon and you have a goal in mind, you want to know how far you've gone and how fast, and then you'll also know how far to go and how much time you have to get there. This kind of goal for this kind of person is helpful. It is well-applied, pertinent, meaningful. Some metrics are... not.

How many rocks did Person A pick up? Seven. Person B? Forty. Give Person B a raise, fire Person A. On day 2 of the job, discover that Person A's rocks were twenty times bigger than Person B's rocks. No matter. The metrics have spoken. With any luck—and a little soft-shoeing and a lot of manipulation—no one who matters will even know until it's too late, and then it's too late.

These are all analogies, and not particularly good ones. All I wanted to say is: mindless obeisance to numerical evaluation is a race to the bottom. The System—whatever your System might be, and no one capitalizes System without a little bit of venom—demands numbers, tables, charts, plans, etc. Those can be provided. You want a metric? I can get you a metric, believe me. There are ways, Dude.

Like many things in the world, this is all good until it becomes a proxy for The Truth. Metrics are a great Guide. The Truth? Depends. I want my thermocouples and pressure transducers to tell me the truth, sure. Measuring the number of spreadsheets Person C cranked out this week versus the planned number of spreadsheets? I don't know. Sounds like a guide to me. But it's easy to forget that it's a guide. Something can be a guide for a while, and then it gets mistaken for a truth, and then it can't be untruthed. Accumulate enough of those unnecessary mistaken truths and you can almost hear the whoooosh that you make as you tumble off a cliff, hellbent for the bottom, at the toppest top speed you can measure, trying desperately until the last moment to understand why—how—the metrics did you wrong.

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